By Rodger Digilio
The School Board Special Election ended with Marc Williams prevailing over the other 3 candidates. The reasons seem clear.
Bernie Schulz is a knowledgeable individual with a lot of education experience. He chose, however, to tie his campaign to the Republican Party. The party chairman defended this saying that the parties in Arlington and Fairfax embrace school board candidates. Alexandria, in case you did not notice, is not Arlington or Fairfax. Citizens here seem to like the “independent” and “non partisan” role of their school board members. With a few exceptions, most candidates in the past have honored it and those who have crossed the party line have done so through endorsements by elected officials. Alexandria is hardly fertile ground for Republican candidates. What was Mr. Schulz thinking? To get elected in Alexandria you have to run a campaign not seek a party endorsement.
Elynn Simons is a very knowledgeable and delightful person. She ran before and did not succeed so a second try was logical. Her campaign, however, did not get off the ground. She loaned her campaign money oblivious to the fact that your contributors are your voters, particularly in a quick election. As a long time teacher and tutor, she knows a lot of details about education. Listening to Ms Simons you often feel that she does not see the big picture and that on the board she would be a constant source of micro management rather than policy formulation.
The real contest was between John Leary and Marc Williams and the two campaigns could not have been more different. Mr. Leary ran a “top down” campaign. His two biggest donors, Jack Taylor and the Delaneys, supplied over 55% of his $15,000 plus in donations that came from 49 sources. The campaign relied heavily on endorsements from elected Democrats and former school board members. Many of the endorsers did not live in the district. He won the Education Association endorsement and used the “Teacher Endorsed” stickers prominently. The campaign used “Robo” calls from John and from a supporter to encourage voters to vote for him. The effort looked like Hilary Clinton’s before she realized that Barack Obama was for real.
Marc Williams ran a “bottom up” campaign. He had only one donor in 4 figures for $1,000 of his $12,400. There were 88 cash contributors. He had a few endorsements from former School Board members who live in his district but most of his public displays were letters and an ad with scores of names of voters. There was intense contact including personal calls and emails from supporters to their friends. Literature was distributed. Events were held. There was a big effort to get people to take signs for their yards.
Mr. Williams is also almost terminally nice. He refused to get agitated when opponents claimed his work on open enrollment honors classes at the middle schools was marginal and left it to other who were involved to set the record straight. He refrained from attacking his opponents when they gave him an opening preferring to remain positive. This will be an asset as he joins a school board that has had deep divisions in the past.
The result played out exactly as Clinton vs. Obama played out. The grass roots effort was much more successful. Mr. Williams mobilized his base of voters and while it would be an exaggeration to say they “poured” out they did turn out in large enough numbers to produce a comfortable victory. In the last analysis it is only the endorsement by the voters that counts.
Of course, one could also argue that Mr. Leary, as a very strong supporter of the former superintendent, was at a great disadvantage in a district where most of the voters had never embraced her and who, in 2006, had elected 3 members who voted against extending her contract. In my discussions over the years, I believed about 25-33% of the citizens supported Ms. Perry. Mr. Leary garnered about 29% of the vote which would be consistent with that estimate.
Mr. Williams has just a short time to savor his victory. He will be hard at work on the school board and, if he wants to keep his seat, hard at work campaigning again before you can say “May Election”.